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What Americans don't get about China (2)

By Dori Jones Yang (People's Daily Online)    17:16, June 13, 2017

American misperceptions are fed by media reports about China’s flaws and lack of Western-style freedoms. But that doesn’t matter to most Chinese. The “great firewall” bothered a young Chinese cousin who formerly worked in Beijing for Oracle, but everyone else was happy with Baidu, WeChat, and Didi, the Chinese-developed versions of Google, Facebook, and Uber. In just a year since our previous visit, electronic payment by cell phone has become widespread, and Didi is so popular that it’s almost impossible to hail a taxi in Beijing. On the subways, about 90 percent of riders stared at their smart phones—some using Apple, some Samsung, some a Chinese brand you’ve never heard of. They can’t read The New York Times, but they have far more access to world news than their grandparents did.

One gap the Chinese do mind is the growing inequality between rich and poor. As recently as 1978, more than 97 percent of Chinese lived in poverty. After decades of fast growth, that number dropped to only 7.2 percent as China has lifted more than 700 million people out of poverty. But the same free-market reforms that opened opportunities to all have also created more than 400 Chinese billionaires, and that fosters resentment. Peasants in remote regions are acutely aware of how far they lag behind.

Still, China’s president, Xi Jinping, has vowed to eradicate poverty by 2020. In 2015, he estimated there were still about 70 million Chinese below the poverty line, defined as about $440 per year. So far, Beijing claims to have reduced the number of poor to 45 million, or 3.3 percent of the population. Compare that to the United States, which reports that 19.4 million live in “deep poverty” – about 6.1 percent of all Americans. Chinese who visit the United States are shocked at the sight of homeless people living in tents under freeways or on streets in all weather.

Measured by per capita GNP, China still lags far behind the United States. China’s average income was $8,133 last year, a remarkable rise from $300 in 1980 but well below America’s $57,436. But China is rapidly urbanizing, with mind-boggling government investment in new airports, roads, and high-speed railroads, which now total 12,500 miles. Even at this year’s slower projected rate of 6.5 percent, China is growing three times faster than the U.S., so the gap is narrowing.

During a two-hour drive from Shanghai to a charming river town, I quizzed our cab driver about living standards. Driver Wu’s father was a farmer; he has driven a taxi for twenty-three years, often working more than twelve hours a day; his son now pilots planes for Shanghai Airlines. In three generations, Wu’s story traces the trajectory of the modern Chinese family. But even his aging father in the countryside has no financial worries; he gets a pension and health insurance from the government and monthly rent from another peasant who now farms his land.

The gap between Americans’ perception of China and their perception of themselves doesn’t bother most Chinese. They have the opportunity to make life better for themselves and their children. As their incomes rise, generation by generation, they are closing what was once a yawning gap between living standards in the United States and China. That’s a gap worth minding. 

Dori Jones Yang is a former correspondent in China for Business Week and author specializing in topics related to China.


(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Chen Lidan, Bianji)

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